I have been the senior pastor at Christ Church for nearly eight years, and the theme I hope you've heard over and over in my preaching is that of the Good News of Jesus Christ—the gospel; that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. I stress this theme both because it is the main point of Scripture and because it's such good news that most people do not believe it. People continue to think that we are reconciled to God on the basis of our good works, not on the sufficient work of Jesus.
After the Good News, there are a half dozen other themes that I frequently revisit: the fact that we are not supposed to stop after we cross the line of salvation but that we are to always grow in the image of Christ; the fact that we are to give our lives away—to live and love and serve and share our lives with others; the fact that we are going to live forever and should be living each day in light of eternity; the fact that this is a broken world, and we should expect that it will be hard; the fact that this is a hard life to live and so we need to look out for one another and be intentional about cultivating friendship with a handful of people with whom we can walk through life.
When I talk about cultivating friendships, I am not talking about merely attending worship services. The level of connection you need cannot happen in this room, nor are worship services designed principally for friendship building. You can be courteous with 500 people, but you cannot share your heart, life, and burdens with them. I'm also not talking about anything that looks like a social club. There is a place for Kiwanis and Rotary and other civic groups. This year, my wife and I will host our 10th neighborhood Memorial Day block party. All of these groups and organizations are great, but they will not serve to create the deep relationships I am talking about.
I am asking you to nurture deep friendships with a handful of other Christ followers who push you closer to God, who know both the good and the bad about you (and whose love is not contingent upon either), who you can call at 2:00 a.m. if you are in a crisis. There are six reasons why I'm calling you to pursue these kinds of relationships.
Deep friendship is God's plan.
Having deep friendships with a handful of people is God's plan. There are a number of passages in Scripture that make this point somewhat directly, such as Acts 2, which talks about how devoted the early church members were to one another. But the fact is, the idea that we are in this together is so basic it is more assumed than stated. It emerges as we reflect on the idea that we have been made in the image of a God who has eternally existed in the friendship of himself: he is one God but three persons; God has never been alone or lonely.
These kinds of friendships are assumed whenever we pray the first word of the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father." The prayer doesn't say "My Father." We are in this together. This affirmation of our need for relationships grows, too, out of the fact that we are born into a family. We do not start out alone. We cannot survive more than the first few hours of life if we are left alone.
This need for connecting with other people is reinforced by the language that surrounds our spiritual rebirth. When we come to faith, we are adopted into the family of God and become brothers and sisters in Christ.
Jesus modeled the need for close friendships. One of the very first things he did after beginning his public ministry was to select 12 disciples from among the broader group that traveled around with him. Within that group of 12, he was particularly close with three, and when life got really crazy, he leaned into them. And when Jesus sent the disciples out, he never sent them out alone.
And then there are all of the passages that describe how we are to interact with one another, all of which assume we are sharing our lives with one another. We are commanded to love one another, encourage one another, care for one another, serve one another, bear one another's burdens, be at peace with one another, wash one another's feet, respect one another, submit to one another, forgive one another, comfort one another, pray for one another, confess our sins to one another, and be hospitable towards one another. Every one of these commands requires that we are in relationship with each other.
I would submit to you that the idea that you were created for community—that friendship is expected, that you are to cultivate loving, nurturing relationships with others—is assumed on just about every page of the Bible.
Americans are bad at friendship.
The second reason I stress the need for connecting with other people is because Americans don't seem to be very good at it. I think you know this at one level; after all, the quintessential American is the self-made person. Our iconic figures—the cowboy, the police detective—always seem to ride alone; they can't be slowed down by a partner.
It's likely that American men are worse at building close friendships than American women. If you ask a man to name his best friend, he's likely to give you the name of someone he hasn't seen in 20 years or talked to in six months. But American women aren't great at friendships either. Our culture is good at many things, but being friends and sharing life is not one of them.
I first realized how narrowly we see things when I started working with Scholar Leaders International, a leadership development initiative. One of the scholars we supported, an African PhD student, had gotten in trouble for helping other students on a final exam. He thought it was positively unchristian to allow others to do less well then he was able to do. I tried to explain to him that he could help them before the test, but helping them during the test was cheating. He said, "So you want me to let my brothers and sisters in the class fail? You are investing in me as a Christian leader, and you expect me to let that happen?"
Since then, I've seen the same thing hundreds of times, virtually every time I leave the West. It happened when I was traveling with a Brazilian leader. He'd started a thriving seminary, planted a church, written books—the man makes things happen. As we were driving from one meeting to another, I said, "Hey, do you want a cup of coffee?" He said, "Really? We have time? Wow. I'm honored. That would be great." I'm thinking, I don't know why he's so thrilled. I quickly pull into a drive through coffee stand, and he says, "Ugh, you Americans. I feel so sorry for you. I thought you were asking me to be my friend. I thought we were going to sit together and share life."
I could tell a dozen more of those stories, how people in other countries generally share more of their lives with each other than we do. Even at Cambridge, with its British reserve, everyone stops for tea at 10:30 and 4:00 and then meets together for half an hour. We Americans are not very good at this.
That certainly holds for our church. We have some great small groups where people really are present for one another. But while we are an easy church to find, we are not an easy church to break into. That's a real problem, because, while people will put up with bad preaching and music they don't like, they will not stay at a church where they are not cared for.
Life change happens best in community.
As Christians, we are living lives with the goal of glorifying God. That assumes several things, and one of them is that we will become more like Christ—more loving, kind, gracious, and patient.
How does change happen? A complete answer would need to highlight the grace of God working in our lives, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and the importance of Scripture, but it would also have to include the presence of others. We get better through our interactions with others—others who help us see ourselves, who coach us, who push us and love us and call out the best in us.
If you are single, you need these kinds of friends. If you are married, you need these kinds of friendships, even if you say that your spouse is your best friend. I say this for two reasons: first, it's unlikely that your spouse can meet all of your emotional needs; second, you need others outside of your marriage helping you change into a person more like Christ. While we like to become better, we don't really enjoy the process; having our rough edges rounded is painful. Your spouse will be sand paper in your life, but it's best if he or she is not the only sand paper you face.
I remember early in our marriage we were having a "discussion," when Sheri said to me, "Your problem is that you don't have any friends. You've got all kinds of people you hang out with. But they're all through your job. Our problem is that I'm the only one pointing out things in your life that need to be worked on, and I don't want that role. I don't want to be the one telling you that you are not caring for me like you should. I don't want to be the one telling you that you need to get better in these areas. I want to be able to build you up, not nag you."
There was a lot of wisdom there. I wish I could tell you that I saw it then as clearly as I do now. But eventually I did get it and learned how to be intentional about seeking relationships with people who would be the kind of friends I needed. I'd never had to do that before. When I was growing up, it seems that I just fell into friendships. And in college I lived with 70 guys in a fraternity, and I was in a Bible Study with a dozen others, and we did life together. But suddenly, I was married and we were living over a thousand miles from everyone we knew, and I had to learn to be more intentional about cultivating the kind of Christian nurturing that I needed.
You need a safety net.
The fourth reason you need to cultivate community is because one day your life isn't going to work. Your life will eventually unravel. Many people work hard to have enough money to survive the loss of a job or the onset of illness, and that's good. But you don't just need money. You need friends. You need emotional and spiritual support. You need someone you can call at 2:00 in the morning to talk you off the ledge.
It used to be that our extended family played that role, but many of us no longer live close to our extended families. It used to be that work colleagues were in that position as well, but many of us now change jobs so often that we are not nearly as close to our colleagues as we used to be. So we have to be more intentional about cultivating community than we have been in the past.
When we lived on the West Coast, we were in one small group for about five years. The group morphed several times, as groups do. People move away; people grow and are ready to lead their own small group. But there were four other families that all had kids the same age as ours and we decided to form our own group apart from the original group. To our shame, we admitted that we picked each other because we all had our lives together. The larger group had a number of couples in serious crisis. We four families had chosen each other because we were not needy.
So we met as this new group for five years, and over the course of this time, every one of us got needy and needed to lean into that group in ways we didn't want to. It's not fun to say, "We need help." But every one of the couples had to say it at some point, as we inevitably encountered sickness, job loss, marital struggles, angst over kids. For a season, every one of us had to become takers, not givers. But in those seasons, the others wanted to give. Sometimes all we could offer each other was our presence; there was nothing to do but weep with those who wept and rejoice with those who were rejoiced.
My definition of a good group is that you know you can call someone at 2:00 in the morning and say, "I need help" and help will arrive. In fact, you know that if you needed help, you'd have to call the others, because they'd be shocked if you didn't! We were made to love and be loved by others; this is one of our primary purposes in life.
Christ commissioned groups of friends to be the engines that changed the world.
Jesus' plan was to invest in a small number of people—to build into their lives, equipping and encouraging them to do the same with others. Paul picks up on that in 2 Timothy 2. He says, "Timothy, the things you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to others, who will in turn be able to entrust them to others." The plan sounds meager, but in fact, Christianity is the longest sustained revolutionary force in the history of the world.
Life is a lot more fun when you have deep friendships.
I've made the case for community. Let me briefly tell you why you may choose to avoid it. First, you may avoid making these kinds of friends because it will take time. Friendships are not very efficient. You will not get what you're after here without time. There is a cost, and you may decide that the cost is too high. You'd rather have more money.
You may be scared of being known. You think that if people knew the real you, they would walk away. It's too scary to risk opening up your life. But that's where grace comes in. That's what's so amazing about the way God has set this up. I understand the fear, but I'm here to tell you that there is freedom on the other side of this endeavor.
Third, you might feel like you're doing OK, so you don't really see the need for deep friendships. If that's the case, then I didn't do a good enough job persuading you that now is the time to invest in this.
Fourth, you'd rather watch TV than work on friendships. It's easier, and it's designed to entertain you. Getting involved in people's lives can be difficult. The idea of being close to people can be more attractive than the actual practice of it. I was reading an article on John Steinbeck in which it was said that he was lonely because he liked people better in his mind than he did in person. You might be able to relate to that.
Fifth, you might not know how to build friendships. You don't know where to start. I understand that, but I know that you can start here. Join a small group here; take that step. Be more intentional about living your life in the company of friends.
Mike Woodruff is senior pastor of Christ Church Lake Forest in Lake Forest, Illinois.